As the typical number of seasonal color change-outs declines industry-wide, consistent maintenance and knack for the sale are more important than ever, according to contractors. In the past, four change outs would have been common, but now only customers with a large budget typically entertain such an option. Today, only three annual color changes are more common, but they come with frequent maintenance, according to contractors Lawn & Landscape spoke to.
“When the economy nosedived it just put landscaping on the back burner for most people,” says Roark Craven, president and CEO of Craven Landscaping, a $2.2 million company in Seaside, Calif. “People are tired of looking at dead lawns, dead flowers, dead plants. Things are really starting to move.”
In general, upselling seasonal color is easier with commercial customers who have a budget for blooms. These color and plant swaps usually occur before the start of spring, summer and fall. “Typically, I will email (customers) pictures of the plants and 99 percent of the time they will just roll with it,” says Shannon Lengell, operations manager for the $1 million Commercial Lawn Care Services in Clearwater, Fla.
A plant’s color, how it will fare in a given climate and its location on a property are important to a project's design.
“We look at minimizing the number of plants, yet optimizing the color,” Craven says. “We used to use a lot of annuals in the planting beds around the house as accent colors and now essentially it's been relegated to little tiny areas and pots mostly due to drought.”
Customer budgets have changed, and so have plant requests. The use of perennials and ever-blooming deer-resistant varieties has increased over annuals. “What’s happening most is we are doing more perennials,” says Roark Craven, president and CEO of Craven Landscaping in Seaside, Calif.
“The deer population precludes us from using a lot of annuals. Succulents have been big."
Succulents work best in mild climates where it does not freeze, he added. Colors range from blues and greens to oranges and reds.
Other varieties that withstand the hot temperatures along the west coast include flax plants in purples and blues, along with salvia, which attracts butterflies. “I have less than 200 plants that I can work with, and to get color in the garden to me is paramount,” Craven says.
In Kansas City, Mo., Trella Banks, a landscape designer at Audrie Seeley & Co. Landscaping in Kansas City, Mo., has seen a decline in the requests for roses due to the risk of disease. Blue, purple and pink Hydrangeas have become more popular.
Down south in Clearwater, Fla., Shannon Lengell, operations manager for Commercial Lawn Care Services, says he uses geraniums frequently and can often get six months or more out of them with proper care. Red and white blooms are attractive during the Christmas season. Salvia is also popular there in yellow and red shades. For leaf color, durantas are common, Lengell says.
If budget is not a concern, experimenting with tropical plants can present a design that offers a lot of color, says William Valois, vice president of operations for Professional Landscape Management Services in Frederick, Md. “You’ve got to be creative," he says. "It makes a difference when you really put your heart and soul into it.”
Instead, colorful perennials and ever-blooming plants are hot.
“Usually the customer wants lots of color all year long and seasonal color is the key to that,” says Trella Banks, a landscape designer at the $4 million Audrie Seeley & Co. Landscaping in Kansas City, Mo. “Sometimes I’ll put it to them like an interior designer. The walls will be the trees and the furniture will be the shrubs and the decor will be the flowers.”
Banks, who says her company makes a 40 percent profit margin on seasonal color work, also looks to a client’s branding for inspiration. “I’ll look at the color of the buildings, their logo, their signage. It’s really important in deciding what will go in there,” Banks says.
As far as commercial work, contractors say most property owners like to see color near signage, at the front of a building and at the entrance to a property. Selecting the right size of plant is important to making an impact.
“We use large plants that will fill in the area quickly that will help with weed control,” says William Valois, vice president of operations for Professional Landscape Management Services in Frederick, Md. Valois, whose company posts $7 million in annual revenue and only services government properties, added that he rarely uses mulch as part of a design – instead the center of attention is the blooms and foliage.
Craven usually services properties on a weekly basis, but has some customers on bi-weekly services. Inevitably they visit their home, typically a vacation or second home, during the week Craven's team is not there, which leads to questions about maintenance. Craven says he has used this as a selling point, encouraging them to sign up for a weekly plan so their property looks good every week.
“I suggest because of security, and also your pleasure, that we come once a week. The cost isn’t that much more,” Craven says.
A few commercial customers are on plans with six change-outs per year, but that’s uncommon, says Lengell, adding that her company sees a 50 percent profit margin on the work. For the rest, when plants begin to look bad he will change them out as needed and simply bill, which works well for his customer base.
“It’s been harder to sell and people have had to cut back on their money and their rotations,” Lengell says. “They’ve mainly just scaled back on rotations. As far as bed size, it hasn’t really changed. Typically we try to keep it consistent with what we did the last time.” Banks says she takes note of a company’s busiest season when selling a change out or simply planning the design for the year.
“If they have yearly or special sales in the fall, I will try to ask them when are the most important parts of the year for their business,” she says. For Valois, one of his largest jobs is taking care of the seasonal color and beds at Arlington National Cemetery. This includes putting special flowers at the President John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite and placing potted plants at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for special occasions such as Memorial Day. “We have full control over the design so we get to pretty much do anything we want,” Valois says, adding that a horticulturist will will ask that he incorporate specific plants or ideas. But his customers always do approve designs before install. Fitting a design within the budget is always the bottom line, he says.
Plant upkeep varies greatly depending on the particular climate and plants selected. Craven Landscaping deals with unique challenges – an ongoing drought, high water bills and on some properties near the coast, the never-ending battle with salt from the ocean.
Because of the high profile nature of his work and the unique climate of Maryland, Valois fertilizes and edges beds weekly. The first two weeks of a new install are vital. His team will typically water daily, depending on how hot and humid it is. Then they will reduce watering to three times a week followed by weekly in the fall. Throughout the year, employees monitor rainfall and temperatures and adjust their maintenance accordingly, Valois says.
Audrie Seeley & Co. Landscaping mostly does installs and little maintenance. Because of this, Banks has instructional guides she will provide to customers containing watering and fertilizing instructions along with a calendar of tasks to complete year-round.
Maintenance crews at Commercial Lawn Care Services visit properties bi-weekly to pinch back flowers. Lengell says he will do a site inspection monthly, which also includes an irrigation inspection. Lengel will fertilize 30 days after install and then when needed, but tries to avoid using fertilizer or insecticides unless there is an issue.
“Just water has worked best unless we find an issue and treat it," Lengell says, adding that drip irrigation is his go-to watering set up. “Catching it quick is the crucial thing.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.